1569 and 2023
by Bob Werb
|Those among us who recognize the importance of space really do want to share our knowledge. Sadly, we are terrible at communicating that knowledge.
So, please, close your eyes, climb into your TARDIS, and head to Europe in 1569, the year Mercator drew his famous map of the world. The general outlines of Earth’s landmasses were known as was basic information about trade winds and even some ocean currents. Even so, there remained a great deal left to discover. The technology of long-distance sea voyaging had advanced dramatically and wealth had been flooding into Europe, especially Spain, for several decades. The voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama, along with the conquest of the Aztec and Inca happened decades long past. While most educated people knew of the “New World” they had only the most basic information about its geography and ethnography—and much of that was wrong. Navigators kept their knowledge secret and, besides, Europeans had more immediate concerns. In England this was the Elizabethan age. Religious war ravaged France. The black death came back in waves every few years. The low countries were in revolt against Phillip II of Spain. With all this, few Europeans were paying attention to the geography and ethnography that was about to shape human history.
This is directly analogous to our current situation. The general outlines of our solar system are known as is basic information about available energy and material resources. Even so, there is a great deal left to discover. The technology of spaceflight has advanced dramatically, and wealth generated from space is rapidly becoming significant, especially for the United States. The voyages of Sputnik, Gagarin, Armstrong, and Aldrin happened decades long past. And, just like 1569, most Earthlings have more immediate concerns, some of which are genuinely existential.
One thing that is different this time is that those among us who recognize the importance of space really do want to share our knowledge. Sadly, we are terrible at communicating that knowledge. As a group we are mostly fascinated by math, science, and technology, so it’s only natural that we talk about opening the space frontier using the language of math, science, and technology. When we see that most people don’t get what we are talking about we bemoan their lack of something called “scientific literacy,” which some years ago Discover magazine described as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” What a load of nonsense! Lots of people without “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes” routinely engage in “personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.”
Science teachers have long recognized the appeal of space (and dinosaurs) to young people and use them with great efficacy to stimulate interest among students—some of them, anyway. Even so, the reality of modern life is that the majority of people whom we think of as having a good education know very little about science and technology, and much of what they think they know is wrong. It’s not that they are ignorant. In fact, they may know lots of things few of us in the space community understand about subjects like the law, accounting, business, teaching, and politics.
|Every educated person would gain an improved understanding of the future by having a general idea about the useful resources available in space but has little need to know how we build spaceships.
Here on Earth we have an area of study called geography that explores the relationship between our civilization and our physical environment, the results of which are widely accessible and extensively used by the non-technically inclined. Calling this the geography of the Solar System strikes me as awkward at best, so I made up the word Solargraphy.
Think back again to Europe in 1569. An educated person would certainly have known that a galleon was a type of ship but had no compelling need to understand exactly what made it special. It would have been useful to know a bit about the when and where of trade winds but hardly essential to know how to use an astrolabe. Knowing that large amounts of silver and gold was arriving from overseas was common knowledge; knowing generally where they came from was useful; knowing exactly how they were mined, not so much.
Again, the analogy holds up quite well. Every educated person would gain an improved understanding of the future by having a general idea about the useful resources available in space but has little need to know how we build spaceships. Concepts like delta-V and light seconds are very useful in understanding the relationships between different places, but it’s hardly essential to know how these things are calculated. Knowing that you will lose your GPS signal in a tunnel is common knowledge; knowing generally where the GPS signal comes from is useful; knowing exactly how it works, not so much.
I’m not in any way suggesting that we stop using space and dinosaurs to get young people interested in science. Having a larger part of our population gain even a basic understanding of science is clearly a valuable and worthy goal. I’m merely suggesting that we recognize that, for the foreseeable future, the majority of society’s decision-makers will be relatively inattentive to math, science, and engineering and that we can use solargraphy in much the same way we use geography to better inform all parts of society.
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